Water System Dedicated to Quality and Conservation

Colorado community’s dedication to system improvement and overall water quality earns it Best of the Best honors.
Water System Dedicated to Quality and Conservation
Burt Knight poses with his water treatment crew at the Bellvue Water Treatment Plant at the mouth of the Cache la Poudre River. Knight and the crew are proudly holding the American Water Association trophy for “Best of the Best” water quality. (Photography by Carl Scofield)

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The founders of the Greeley, Colorado, water system would have been mighty proud when the city won the Best of the Best award in the American Water Works Association water-taste competition this year.

That’s because water was uppermost in their minds when they settled this area in the late 1800s. “They created a ditch as one of their first projects and provided nonpotable water for irrigation and gardens in the city,” explains Burt Knight, Water and Sewer department director.

Then in 1905, Greeley’s citizens voted overwhelmingly to go to the mountains for high-quality drinking water. “They purchased property and water rights to the Cache la Poudre River northwest of the city and built the Bellvue Water Treatment Plant at the mouth of the Poudre Canyon,” Knight says. The water was piped by gravity 32 miles to Greeley via a wood stave pipeline.

“They were also concerned about good practices,” Knight says. “In fact, they restricted watering to certain days of the week.”


Today, Greeley owns a robust portfolio of water rights to the Poudre River as well as the Big Thompson, Colorado, and Laramie rivers. Water is still treated at the 32 mgd Bellvue plant, which was upgraded to its current treatment system in 1946-47 and underwent further improvements in 2007.

While a section of it is on display in the department’s offices in Greeley, the old wooden pipeline is long gone, replaced by four transmission lines from the Bellvue Water Treatment Plant and two more from the Boyd Lake Water Treatment Plant 18 miles away that carry water to a series of three treated water storage reservoir complexes and one elevated storage tank in the city. Total treated storage capacity is 69.75 million gallons. Although the long transmission lines make operation and maintenance difficult, treating water closer to the source results in better water quality and lower treatment cost, the utility believes.

The water is then delivered to some 24,000 residential customers through a 457-mile distribution system, consisting of steel, cast iron, ductile iron, and PVC pipe, ranging from 6 to 36 inches in diameter. Age of the pipe dates from the 1890s to the present.

A new Greeley transmission pipeline has just been completed to supplement the existing transmission lines. The new line is 60 inches in diameter, traverses 30 miles, and took nearly 13 years to build.

The Boyd Lake treatment facility in Loveland is rated at 38 mgd and used as a peaking plant during the high-watering season in summer, or as a backup in case the Bellvue plant is down. Source water is drawn from Boyd Lake and Lake Loveland. The plant was built in 1964 and upgraded in 2005.

Meticulous maintenance

Carrying on their heritage of concern about water, Knight’s department practices a rigorous maintenance schedule. Knight explains that the utility previously developed a robust asset management system for its collections network, and the system helped the staff make good decisions on capital improvement projects and point repairs on sewer lines.

With that history, the asset management system was expanded to include the water treatment plants, transmission lines and distribution lines. “Asset management saves us money as it helps us make strategic choices on how to maintain our systems and plan capital improvements,” Knight says.

Greeley also conducts proactive maintenance by working with an organized plan — an approach Knight says helps the utility create a vision and look several years into the future.

It helps that Greeley has what they call a “depreciation fund” that allows the utility to take care of necessary repairs and replacements as they are needed rather than having to compete with other capital projects from a budget standpoint.

“We’re able to ask for what we need and get it done,” Knight says.

He says the fund is supported by a portion of the rates Greeley charges customers, but even with that charge, the city’s rates rank about in the middle of rates charged by comparably sized cities.

Pipe lining

With some of the iron pipes dating back decades, Greeley has fought corrosion by using a cement mortar-lining technique on its cast iron and ductile iron lines. The main objective is to remove rust and provide a pipe wall that will last long into the future.

Greeley has lined about 4 miles of pipe a year and has completed a total of 81 miles of pipe, all of which was originally installed before 1950 with no corrosion protection.

In the process, a rotating blade, matched to the inside diameter of the pipe, is pulled through the pipe to scour rust off the pipe walls. “It’s similar to pigging a sewer line, and it’s about half the cost of replacing the pipe,” Knight says.

Following rust removal, a rotating spray head is drawn through the pipe, applying a coat of cement to the inside pipe wall. A smoothing device tracks behind the sprayer to assure a smooth pipe surface.

Knight says one of the city’s engineers, Dan Moore, was responsible for suggesting the approach and bringing the technology to the utility. “Not only has it saved us money,” Knight says, “it’s extended the life of our existing pipelines by up to 50 years. It’s much less expensive and disruptive than pipe replacement.”

He says the cement-lining project has improved water quality, improved the flow and pressures, and added more capacity for firefighting in the rehabilitated pipes.

Fixing leaks

Greeley has been aggressive about detecting and fixing leaks. “We inspect about 100 miles of the system every year,” Knight says, meaning the entire system is reviewed every five years. Using the water department’s distribution system plat book, a specific area is mapped out. An LD-12 listening device from Pollardwater locates areas where leaks exist. “The leak is then repaired and has helped us keep our losses from leaks at around 5 percent,” Knight says. That’s well below the national average of 15-16 percent.

For the transmission pipe system, the utility is beginning to employ a SmartBall and Free Swimmer (Pure Technologies US) acoustical device to pinpoint exact leak locations and analyze pipe wall defects. The SmartBall is capable of locating leaks and air pockets in waterlines and can find leaks as small as 0.3 gallons per minute. Free Swimmer records the wall structure of the existing pipe, identifying areas that corrosion has reduced the thickness.

“The SmartBall was new this year,” Knight says. “The utility is always looking for ways to reduce loss.”

People issues

Greeley works just as hard on “softer” planning and staffing issues as it does on pipes and valves.

“We completed our water master plan in 2003,” Knight says. “It is a forecast of what facilities we need to improve and establishes how we will accomplish our work as we go forward.”

The plan highlights four guiding principles Greeley strives for: expanding raw water storage, strengthening infrastructure through maintenance and redundancy, continuing water acquisition, and improving conservation.

“That’s the four-point plan for our water system,” Knight says.

Staffing is a critical part of any utility plan, and Greeley has paid attention to the details.

“We’ve combined some of our service divisions — water transmission and distribution, and wastewater collections — into a single service group,” Knight says. That provides a larger labor force and cross-training across the utility. Plus, it benefits employees in that they learn about bigger systems and have more opportunity for advancement. “It’s all one now,” he says. “We get better efficiency (by combining these groups) and can cover gaps if someone leaves or when responding to larger emergencies.”

Retirement planning

Retirement is another issue Greeley takes seriously. “Like everybody else, we have an aging workforce,” Knight says, noting that some employees in supervisory positions have 20 to 30 years’ experience.

“It’s an issue I hold close,” he says. “We need a system that will extract some of that key knowledge and retain it for future employees.”

He says some employees may think that newcomers can learn on the job just the way they did, but that’s impractical today and carries too much risk. “We need to collect their knowledge and capture it in a digital form that will give new employees tools to enable them to retrieve the information.

“We’re trying to put as much information into the system as we can — some audio, some video, SOPs — and put the information in a location where everybody can find it,” he adds. Utilities need to capture why things are the way they are, Knight says, “without having to figure it out each time.”

Knowledge capture goes hand in hand with succession planning, another activity getting Knight’s attention these days. One approach, he says, is to get a new employee on board before the person they are replacing leaves. Another is to hire some key retirees back in part-time roles. “We have been able to still get some valuable time with these employees by relieving them of supervisory responsibilities and foregoing the regimented five-day-a-week schedule. This allows us to give them different work assignments and still have them available to convey technical information to the other staff.”

One of the most important pieces of information to be passed along is the effort needed to produce water that meets Greeley’s quality standards, recently recognized by AWWA as Best of the Best.

Knight recalls winning the AWWA regional contest for best-tasting tap water in 2016 and besting 33 other contestants in Philadelphia before winning the grand prize this year. It’s not easy to win that honor. “We had two different types of source water,” Knight says. “In the fall when the regional competition occurred, it’s more settled water, and in the spring, we have the spring runoff source used for the national award. It takes a lot of talent by our operators to deal with both and produce a consistent, award-winning product at the end of the day.” Knight notes that one judge said the Greeley water was “refreshing” and “made me want to drink more.”

In Philadelphia, there was another contest at the AWWA conference called the People’s Choice that was open to numerous water providers and that Greeley also won. “It’s sort like a chili cook-off with attendees voting on the water,” Knight says. This was the first time a water provider won both contests.  

“Winning it again is going to be tough,” Knight says. But he believes his staff is top-notch and gives a nod to the city’s founders who more than a century ago sought high-quality water in the mountains above Greeley.

Budgeting water conservation

Like most Western cities, Greeley, Colorado, has a comprehensive water conservation plan. In fact, according to John Thornhill, water resources operations manager, the city has been practicing water conservation since 1907, when the community’s early settlers limited watering to certain days of the week and enacted time-of-day restrictions.

But today, the plan has a new program. It’s called the Water Budget, and the city implemented it just last February as a way to reward customers for using no more water than they need.

“It’s patterned after a program launched by the Irvine Ranch Water District in California some years ago,” Thornhill says. “But it’s tailored to our needs.”

The program uses the number of people in a family and the size of the yard on the property to establish an optimum amount of water needed by each individual customer each month.

Customers staying within that limit pay the lowest water rate. Customers using more than the optimum amount fall into the “Inefficient Use” category and pay a higher rate. Above that, there are “Excessive Use” and “Unsustainable Use” rates for accounts consuming much more water than necessary.

Water Budget is unique for each of the system’s 24,000 residential customers, and customers can go online to see their water usage on a real-time basis.

The program differs from others in that the usage levels and rates change with the weather. In dry conditions, the Water Budget is more generous; in wet weather, the water budget will be lower.

Thornhill says marketing has helped the program get off to a good start. “We began talking about the Water Budget in our billing statements four years prior to its start,” he says. In addition, he estimates the city made between 40 and 50 presentations on the program.

While the Water Budget doesn’t apply to commercial accounts, those users pay a basic raw water surcharge and are charged more if they use more than the amount of water dedicated during development.

Overall, Greeley has reduced water consumption by more than 20 percent through a variety of conservation measures. The city offers a showerhead exchange, toilet rebates, and rebates for water-smart landscaping and irrigation practices.

“In reality, places with limited water supplies have to be as efficient as possible, plus the state mandates water conservation,” Thornhill says. Now, following in the footsteps of the community’s founders, Greeley plans to become even more water efficient through its new Water Budget program.

For more information on Greeley’s water budget, visit: www.efficiencyrewarded.com.


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